Michigan Tech. researchers study taking pump-hydroelectric energy storage underground

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NEGAUNEE, Mich. (WJMN) – Faculty and Students from Michigan Technological University provided an update on their study on the feasibility of using the abandoned Mather B Mine as underground pump-hydroelectric energy storage on Saturday, August 21.

The study has been ongoing since 2019. The team showed a slide show in the high school auditorium then moved to the cafeteria for community members to ask questions. Timothy Scarlett, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology in the Department of Social Sciences at Michigan Technological University and researcher on the project says the study looks at the feasibility from several standpoints and creates a model of collaborative problem-solving.

“It’s an opportunity for us to develop a model for projects where instead of having companies and agencies doing things to people, that people and companies and agencies can get together and talk about a critical problem and designing collaborative solutions to it for really the first time to get combined visions of productive, profitable, valuable solutions to problems,” said Scarlett.

The research team is made up of several members of MTU’s faculty and many students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Scarlett says community members have been important to the project.

“When we conceptualized the study the idea was not to purely approach it from the perspective of an energy company or a regulator or a municipality it was to think about the question of social interest and acceptance in communities in addition to that and when we started our project the reason we were able to do the project is because the community as well as the electrical provider, WPPI energy, opened their doors to us,” said Scarlett. “The Cliff’s Shaft Museum opened up their archive and made expertise available and shared stories with us, that enriched our study so much that in many ways that’s kind of the point that we were able to do so much more because the community was involved.”

Roman Sidortsov, Associate Professor of Energy Policy in Michigan Technological University’s Social Sciences Department, is the principal investigator of the study. He says he had the idea for the project was something he was thinking about while running one day.

“One of the things that I was thinking about is how come we don’t have pump hydro facilities storage facilities that can store a lot of electricity and can deliver a lot of electricity to satisfy our storage needs underground,” said Sidortsov. “And I came up with this idea, shared this idea with Tim and that’s how we got rolling.”

Sidortsov and Scarlett talk about considering the social implications of using a mine for hydro-electric storage.

The researchers applied for a grant from the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation to support the study. Sidortsov says that the idea isn’t new, it originated in the 1950s and 60s but now there has been a resurgence. Scarlett says that he got involved because as an archaeologist his work involves mining and working in post-mining communities.

“He started asking questions about the way in which energy systems and mining companies and communities had evolved and about pumped-hydro versus hydroelectric and the more that we talked about it the more provocative that it became, the more interesting and intriguing the question became,” said Scarlett. “As we started inviting others and started seeking help from others more and more people began to join us to think about this question.”

The final draft will be reviewed by the city, WPPI Energy and the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation. After the team receives final comments from the listed partners, they will respond to the remaining questions in either a preface or conclusion in the report and then post the document for free download.

Sidortsov talks about the multi-disciplinary team that worked on the study

The study researched underground pump-hydroelectric energy storage feasibility in regard to engineering, laws and regulations, economics, history and social implications using the Mather B Mine site as an example. Sidortsov says that the study has the opportunity to shift the way people think about energy policy, how energy projects are valued and bringing elements of energy and environmental justice into the decision-making process when developing energy facilities.

“We also are talking about breaking the pattern of making these assumptions that an energy facility should be and can be built anywhere, no it shouldn’t be built and can be built anywhere,” said Sidortsov. “A greenfield not built on is a greenfield, forest or ag land or whatever it is saved. In terms of the energy law I think the biggest contribution is really merging the scholarship from brownfield research, brownfields and environmental research, and really looking at it from just say the mitigation and environmental perspective but also bringing the elements of property law because we are dealing with a bit of uncharted waters in terms of subterranean space, we are dealing with a bit of uncharted waters in terms of figuring out the tax implications of this project.”

Sherdul Tiwari, Ph.D student in the Social Sciences department at MTU, says the study could also help develop a more comprehensive framework for determining the economic value of energy projects.

“This is like very small beginning I would say because looking the current economic model that just looks at one side of things when they value energy storage technology and working through this interdisciplinary research it is not just about economics so we can look at more comprehensive framework and send it out in the literature that it’s not only about pricing of selling and buying which matters like you have to look at the overall cost which either the society is paying for or the overall gain which society is making,” said Tiwari.

Tiwari says that pump hydroelectric storage facilities already exist in other places but the idea with this study is to take the technology underground and also considering the economic side of things.

Tiwari describes how demand for electricity changes the cost and economic considerations for storing electricity

Ana Dyreson, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MTU, says their study will also contribute to the greater research on how the electrical grid may look in the future.

“I think basically when we look at the electricity grid changing as it is due to multiple economic and environmental drivers there are many technologies whose role will change and technologies that will now become more possible,” said Dyreson. “Like people are looking at flexible nuclear, offshore wind, they’re looking at more and more solar in northern environments and carbon capture and storage. This is one that I think it fits in there, where it’s something that we knew about but with the future grid changing as it is the contribution of a technology like this also changes and it may become more possible in the future grid.”

Dyreson says underground considerations are things they believe they can engineer through.

“There are considerations for underground work as one thing, first of all just how do you make a workable space for people to perhaps on a daily basis but at least on a maintenance basis be able to access these machines so workspace and safe access to workspace is an issue,” said Dyreson. “Also just getting, so a bulk of the turbomachinery needs to be underground right like 1,000 feet underground or so, and so just getting that equipment there and installing it there is an issue.”

David Nelson, planning and zoning administrator for the City of Negaunee, says the city helped figure out what mine would make sense to study.

“With Negaunee’s history we have a large amount of abandoned underground mines and open-pit mines,” said Nelson. “So they kind of approached us kind of got an idea of which mine would be the most feasible for them to study, we identified the Mather B Mine as the majority of it is on city property. It’s kind of interesting because the old admin shops building is now our high school so we have a lot of information in regards to the Mather B Mine.”

Nelson says the mine is also a newer mine in comparison to the Negaunee mine and it had not had a collapse. The Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum and the City of Negaunee worked with the researchers to get them the underground plans for the mine.

“They were granted access to the site, you cannot actually go into the Mather Shaft, it is all sealed off there is no access point to actually get into the underground workings,” said Nelson. “There was an access point for them to do some water testing but that was a very small access point.”

Nelson says he is interested in seeing the study because it’s green technology and could provide jobs to the City of Negaunee but says the cost of implementing an underground storage facility would probably need to be taken on by a private and public partnership.

“I don’t know that it would be the City of Negaunee that would actually pursue it, it would probably be a higher level organization probably like the Federal Government or something with a little bit more funding,” said Nelson.

The study will be fully released sometime in mid-September.

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